(archived — use the download or “Play in Popup” link)
Presented by: Rev. Elizabeth McMaster
READING -from A Precious Autobiography, by Yevgeny Yevtushenko
The scene he is describing is of a procession of twenty thousand German war prisoners being marched through the streets of Moscow when he was eleven years old.
“The pavements swarmed with onlookers, cordoned off by soldiers and police. The crowd was mostly women–Russian women with hands roughened by hard work, lips untouched by lipstick, and with thin, hunched shoulders which had borne half of the burden of the war. Every one of them must have had a father or a husband, a brother or a son killed by the Germans.
“They gazed with hatred in the direction from which the column was to appear. At last we saw it. The [German] generals marched at the head, massive chins stuck out, lips folded disdainfully, their whole demeanor
meant to show superiority over the plebeian victors.
‘They smell of eau-de-cologne, the bastards,’ someone in the crowd said with hatred. The women were clenching their fists. The soldiers and policemen had all they could do to hold them back.
“All at once something happened to them. They saw German soldiers, thin, unshaven, wearing dirty, bloodstained bandages, hobbling on crutches or leaning on the shoulders of their comrades; the soldiers walked with their heads down. The street became dead silent–the only sound was the shuffling of boots and the thumping of crutches.
“Then I saw an elderly woman in broken down boots push herself forward and touch a policeman’s shoulder, saying, ‘Let me through.’ There must have
been something about her that made him step aside. She went up to the column, took from inside her coat something wrapped in a colored handkerchief and unfolded it. It was a crust of black bread. She pushed it awkwardly into the pocket of a soldier, so exhausted that he was tottering on his feet. And now suddenly from every side women were running towards the soldiers, pushing into their hands bread, cigarettes, whatever they had.
“The soldiers were no longer enemies. They were people.”
SERMON “Faith Based Initiatives: Delight or Debacle?”
“All at once something happened to them,” he writes. And the mob of bitter, angry people turn into a swarm of humanity. How can we look on faith based initiatives as anything other than the crying need of all of us to help those who struggle with their lives–those hit by unemployment who can’t meet the rent payments; those hobbled by alcohol and drugs who need treatment, not scorn; those in sweatshops (not just in China or far off places, but right here in America and perhaps right here in Northern New Mexico) who need our legislative clout to relieve their hardships. A crust of black bread.
And it is out of this compassion that President Bush’s Faith-Based Initiatives seemingly comes–seemingly, to some. And there’s the rub. For some of us, this quickly announced plan, along with office and budget, has been thrown at us without adequate warning and without adequate discussion. Nine days after Bush’s inauguration, on January 29, he launched a major drive to provide public funds for churches and other religious ministries that provide assistance for Americans in need. At a White House ceremony, surrounded by 35 religious representatives from a variety of faith traditions, Bush said, “When we see social needs in America, my administration will look first to faith-based programs and community groups, which have proven their power to save and change lives.’ As a cautionary, he added, “We will not fund the religious activities of any group, but when people of faith provide social services, we will not discriminate against them.’1 The next day , January 30, he established the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives; he asked Congress to broaden government funding for private service providers nationally by opening all federal grant programs to allow religious groups to compete for tax dollars. He also proposed expanded tax breaks for donations to religious groups and other charities that provide after-school programs for children, job training, drug treatment, prison rehabilitation and abstinence programs. The price tag is between $8 and $10 billion dollars for the first year.
So, what kinds of programs are we talking about, and what are the pro’s and con’s of this billions-of-dollars program the new President has initiated? Let me tell you about a couple of them:
“When George W. Bush was campaigning for president, he stopped in downtown Los Angeles at the Dream Center and praised it as the kind of religious antipoverty program he wanted his administration to support…The center is a church for worshipers and a ministry for people in need. It was founded more than six years ago by…Pentecostal pastors…Matthew Barnett, (one of the founders) said he wanted “to build a church that never sleeps’ to serve the community. “All the programs are born,’ (he says), “by walking the streets and seeing the need.’
“The group bought a…hospital and renovated one wing. The center houses about 200 volunteers and 200 recovering drug and alcohol addicts, gang members and ex-convicts who call themselves BADD–Born Again and Delivered Disciples. They rely on intensive Bible study and cold-turkey detoxification. Of those who make it through the first 30 days…about half stay through the full year and finish the program…
“The Dream Center is a virtual shopping center for social services, offering an emergency shelter, an AIDS hospice, volunteer doctors, a center for teenagers, a private school and a food program that…provides 20,000 meals a week.
“the Center is asking the state of California and the federal government for $700,000 in grants to start a job training program.”2
“Middleton Outreach Ministries, or MOM, is part of a national trend favoring church-government partnerships, or what is commonly called charitable choice…(B)orn 20 years ago as the outreach mission of a Lutheran church, (MOM) is now sponsored by 10 Christian congregations (in Madison, WI). (Dietrich) Gruen, (MOM’s executive director, and) who was ordained in the Presbyterian Church USA, says the essence of MOM’s ministry is to act out, rather than preach, the Christian gospel.
“‘There’s no religious instruction, no proselytizing,’ he says. “We’re not going to say you’ve got to sit for prayer to get a meal.’…(But) walking into the waiting room…it’s hard to miss the group’s Christian roots. “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path,’ proclaims the calligraphy at the bottom of a large framed print. Other art messages advise, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,’ and “Lord, in all I do in work or play, may I serve you every day.’”3
I believe that these two examples, and many others like them across the country, are helping thousands of people get back on their feet. I am glad they exist and I praise those hard-working social workers who, every day, work to bring hope into people’s lives.
But. And here’s where I hang up. If the government is to become involved in faith-based charities, and, by its very nature, use tax moneys to do so, then there are problematic areas to pay attention to.
Listen to The Rev. Talitha Arnold of the United Church of Santa Fe. Rev. Arnold is a socially conscious Christian minister. She has served on Santa Fe’s Children and Youth Commission and Affordable Housing Roundtable, been President of Habitat for Humanity, and advocated for Human Rights with the state legislature. Her church founded the Prison Family Center, St. Elizabeth’s Shelter for the Homeless, and Habitat. Currently, that church has 50 volunteers who tutor children at an elementary school and they provide financial support for a number of other human-need organizations in Santa Fe. You’d think she’d be jumping up and down over President Bush’s call for government support of faith-based social programs.
But, she says, “I have to admit it makes me uneasy.” Why? Because, she says, “I wonder whose faith it’s based on. In his inaugural address, Mr. Bush spoke of unity and respect for all Americans, regardless of race, color or creed. But, (she continues) he chose two fundamentalist Christian preachers to offer the opening and closing prayers.”4
In other words, Rev. Arnold is wary of a President–a born-again President in fact–who speaks of fairness and equality for all Americans and then disproves his words by his actions. The Rev. Wanda Henry, a Baptist minister, underscores this unease, by stating, “‘As an ordained minister and person of faith dedicating my professional life to the defense of religious liberty, I have one piece of advice for church leaders: Say ?no, thank you’ to government funds for your religious ministries…You are doing just fine without the heavy hand of government on your back.’ She add(s), ?Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said the church is not the master of the state, nor the servant of the state, but the conscience of the state. Charitable choice threatens to make religion the servant of the state, rather than its conscience.’”5
I think the problematic aspects of this faith-based initiative are based on more than simple suspicion. In an email last week from a colleague, she relates an event that happened last month regarding a meeting that was held in Augusta GA as relayed by the spouse of an Augusta rabbi. This is a portion of her report of the meeting:
On Saturday morning, February 24, 2001, I attended a meeting with Steve Goldsmith, head of President George W. Bush’s Faith-based Charity
Initiative. The mayor of our town, Augusta, Georgia, had sent personal invitations to the local clergy and I had read a small blurb about the meeting in the newspaper. There were about 200 people in attendance and
lasted about 1-1/2 hours. After some investigation, I realized that only Christian clergy were invited to the meeting. In addition, by having a meeting on a Saturday morning, the mayor was assured of no Rabbis attending.
“The meeting began with a prayer by the Episcopalian minister and the mayor introduced our “special” guest, Ralph Reed (former head of the
Christian Coalition and now an advisor to President Bush). When Mr. Goldsmith spoke he explained that the faith-based charities initiatives involved no new monies, it was actually a move to lift the restrictions from the current government funds going to non-profit organizations. Religious groups would be allowed to compete for federal money to achieve their missions. If a church was in the business of setting up a soup kitchen, the government money could be used for everything “except the Bibles”. The group could continue to pass out religious material (that they themselves provide) and require prayer by their clients.
They could not discriminate against clients but could insure that “acceptable” people work at the group. For example, they could make sure only Christians, men, or heterosexual people would be on their staff. A Catholic church could set up a sex-education program with
government money. I have heard the comment several times that this is to lift the discrimination against Christians.
“During the question session, a man stood up from “Miracle Makers”. He said that his group built houses and did after-school training but their real goal was to spread the gospel. Would they be eligible for money?
Mr. Goldsmith replied yes. Bush was trying to level the playing ground. The head of United Way stood up to praise the plan. When the meeting was over, Mr. Goldsmith got a standing ovation from most of the
people in the room.
“When I confronted the Mayor about whom he invited, he told me he invited everyone in the phonebook under “Church”. When I suggested that he had left out “Synagogues”, he replied, “well I guess you’re going to tell me I left out the Imams too”.
“I also confronted Mr. Goldsmith afterwards. I asked him if he was a practicing Jew. He said yes. I asked him what Synagogue he belonged to and he wanted to know why I wanted to know. He finally told me he belonged to a Conservative synagogue in Indianapolis. I also found it interesting that he was wearing a “Boy Scout” pin on his suit jacket.”
The crazy thing about this issue is that strange bedfellows are springing up all over. Here I am getting cozy with a United Church and a Baptist minister. (I’m not at all surprised to be in bed with a Jew. We’ve been close to liberal Jews on most issues in this country).
But here’s a different slant on it from a Unitarian Universalist minister:
“I’ve been thinking about the new opportunities to distinguish the independence and interdependence of church and state, based upon President Bush’s invitation that the Republic do so. Our church just finished
sponsoring a workshop with Planned Parenthood on the role of religious communities in health and reproductive education. Planned Parenthood staff were
lamenting the move in the (state) legislature to “defund” Planned Parenthood. Well, they may take the money away, but it would be wonderful if liberal churches relocated family planning inside the church, instead of
giving it over completely to a secular agency, much as I admire, respect, and support Planned Parenthood. Where better than the liberal church to house
such a thing? It would be an opportunity, finally, to treat a woman facing the moral choice of ending a pregnancy, surrounded by a religious community
devoted to holding as sacred her relationship with God through individual conscience. And it would situate sexuality education for the culture within the loving embrace of a religious viewpoint that sees sexuality as a gift from God, multi-faceted as that gift is. And, supported by the government!, which would be a nice, nice turn on our civic obligations and building up the
civic square in the responsible, inclusive, compassionate ways that President Bush declared at the convention and has now made possible! It would truly be a return to that “old time religion” for the liberal church, since the first family planning clinic in this country was housed in one of our own churches!
“Thank God for the Republicans” (my colleague continues). Back to the future may even turn out to have a silver lining for those who have a larger faith!”
Well, my friend, I hear you, and I think it would be wonderful if all UU churches housed some kind of social service that elevates the human spirit, provides support to all those minorities in our society that are discriminated against by others, and gets us more deeply involved in solving societal ills.
However, I at last come down on the side of “it’s wrong.” Plain wrong. I think it’s wrong to break down the wall of separation between church and state for many reasons. (And I have read that when President Bush was asked, by the press corps, about his approach to the First Amendment and how his policies may conflict with the religious liberties guaranteed by that Amendment, he said, “I appreciate that question, because I, in the state of Texas, had heard a lot of discussion about a faith-based initiative eroding the important bridge between church and state.”6 Mr. President, a bridge is not a wall! It makes me worry over Mr. Bush’s definitions and meanings of our Constitution and its Amendments.
Faith based initiatives are wrong, i believe, for a number of reasons:
1) Taxing the population to support religious institutions we do not believe in is wrong. It means that your taxes can go to organizations whose faith beliefs belie your own.
2) Discrimination in hiring because of religion is ok, if you’re using private funds. Discrimination in hiring using public moneys is wrong. It means that a charitable organization can establish a consulting program for unwed mothers and discriminate against hiring you if you believe in a woman’s choice to abort. It means they can discriminate against you because their religion says that homosexuality is wrong.
3) People in need might, subtly or not so subtly, be forced to subscribe to a certain religion. Trying to monitor such activities is virtually impossible. When I went to a meeting at the NM State Penitentiary asking for volunteers to mentor soon-to-be released prisoners, one woman said, “I just want to bring Jesus into every life my life touches.” Try to get her to not do that with someone she’s mentoring!
4) The plan would lead easily into federal regulation of religion. In talking with the staff of Self-Help, they state their fierce belief in not receiving federal dollars. This relieves them of burdensome paper work and interminable investigation by bureaucrats. Given Bush’s plan, there’s nothing to stop the ferderales from auditing a church’s books.
5) the plan pits faith groups against each other. Instead of churches, mosques, synagogues coming together to solve community problems, the chances are high that they would each be competing against each other for federal dollars. Battling for a piece of the government pie is not the way to community harmony.
Well, that’s about enough from me. Let’s pause a moment for silent reflection and then enter into congregational reflection on this topic.